When you trundle up towards Plaza de Mulas along the regular route for Aconcagua, a few hours in you pass a long curving valley heading up and around to a 3,000 meter face. The face as you get closer, as big faces are wont to do, gets bigger and bigger. By the time you stand at its base, rocks crashing down and ice melting and falling down around you, just about any other way up Aconcagua seems to make more sense.
Messner had written up his early ascent of the peak, completing a direct finish as was his style, but in a rare case, using both fixed ropes and climbing with a team until high on the face. Memorialized in his book, The Big Walls (aka my climbing partner Paul Teare, referred to them all as The Big Crawls), we had a few grainy photos and a line penciled in that denoted the route.
We acclimatized for a week, passing Christmas and then New Years, and as the whiskey ran dry, took a foray onto the face. It was steep, loose, unpleasant and foreboding. And it was obviously a long way, a very long way. We left the tent behind, less comfort at night and faster climbing by day was to be our incentive.
The rock the first day could be described as dirt-stone. Brown, crumbling, with blocks of harder rock in it, but when grasped tended to pull loose from the cliff. We climbed ridges and deep chimneys, crept around overhangs and by sunset were up the first thousand meters. It was both harder and worse than expected. A long snow slope with a gentle ridge, hollowed out, was our bed under the stars. The wind was low, who needs a tent.
Day 2, a European team below us disappeared down the hill. They had done the Eiger in a day as training, and carried paragliders on their backs for the descent. But the scale of the Face, the dirt, the cliffs, the unrelenting exposure and the remoteness were on a different scale here. To reward us, the next 5 pitches were on beautiful red rock, cliffs and seams, with one crazy chimney with our backs pressed tight against the rock on the outside and front pointing up the inside on a thin smear of ice. Mixed climbing, very mixed climbing. I was eternally thankful Paul knew what he was doing.
The ice cliffs above were several 100 meters of overhanging, toppling blocks. Paul went straight up, out, around a corner. Then we went up through a cave, into a crevasse, out the other side and popped out on top, In four hours or less. There was certainly no rappeling or downclimbing that, we were now committed to the summit. Tales of the first alpine ascent were remembered, a team of three climbing through the cliff, unable to descend and committed to the top – with only one climbing out in the end.
The night was windy, stuck under an ice cliff, spin-drift in the sleeping bag, ice in the hair – now we wished we had a tent as we lay raw and open to the elements.
Things were going so well really, so the next day we got lost on a huge terrace, went up, down and sideways and only reached the base of the summit ice fields by sunset. I would later write in an article ‘my logos were drooping,’ which Paul would repeat on many a climb to come. We slept on a thin ledge on the edge of a crevasse, part of a misplaced bergschrund hidden in the immensity of the face. Breakfast was baby cereal, the food of choice, highly nutritious, easy to digest, quick to cook.
The summit ice field would of been glorious if not for a day of tired, altitude head wracking front pointing skyward up through 6,000 meters. This was the Messner finish, leading to the top of the regular route. At the ridge, a blast of air hit us. Despite considering just heading down, we scampered right and up the easy ridge to the top. The food was gone, the water a dribble, the spirits soared a bit anyway. Was a crystal clear morning.
Four days and a bit, on top before lunch. Front points dull and axe picks dented, rope frayed, a few mashed pitons still dangling and stuck together with dirtstone.
We met the first people we had seen since the start of the climb, galloped down through the crowds of the regular route and into Plaza de Mulas for a beer. There was true adventure to be found on the 7 summits, it just sometimes is on the other side of the summits.